On Language: All-Purpose Pronoun

From the New York Times Magazine, July 26, 2009


What can you say in 140 characters? On Twitter, that’s your limit per tweet. The Twitterati consider this the last word in writing lite, but they’ve devoted quite a few tweets to a venerable linguistic quest that has long thwarted old-media types: the search for an all-purpose pronoun that’s masculine or feminine, singular or plural. Scores of tweets in recent months — enough to inspire a CNN segment earlier this year — have agonized over the lack of a universal pronoun and bemoaned the verbal acrobatics it takes to say something like this in a nonsexist way: “Everybody thinks he’s hot” or “A texter worships his smart phone.”

Some of the suggestions? Combining his and her into hiser, and he and she into s/he or he/she or shhe. One tweeter asked plaintively, “Can we just accept that ‘they’ can be used as singular?” But another wrote, “I HATE it when people make improper use of plural pronouns for gender neutrality!” Several suggested writing around the problem (“Sometimes I try to alternate he and she, but bleh”). One tweet seemed to sum up the general attitude: “Damn you, English language!”

Traditionalists, of course, find nothing wrong with using he to refer to an anybody or an everybody, male or female. After all, hasn’t he been used for both sexes since time immemorial? Well, no, as a matter of fact, it hasn’t. It’s a relatively recent usage, as these things go. And it wasn’t cooked up by a male sexist grammarian, either.

If any single person is responsible for this male-centric usage, it’s Anne Fisher, an 18th-century British schoolmistress and the first woman to write an English grammar book, according to the sociohistorical linguist Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Fisher’s popular guide, “A New Grammar” (1745), ran to more than 30 editions, making it one of the most successful grammars of its time. More important, it’s believed to be the first to say that the pronoun he should apply to both sexes.

The idea that he, him and his should go both ways caught on and was widely adopted. But how, you might ask, did people refer to an anybody before then? This will surprise a few purists, but for centuries the universal pronoun was they. Writers as far back as Chaucer used it for singular and plural, masculine and feminine. Nobody seemed to mind that they, them and their were officially plural. As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, writers were comfortable using they with an indefinite pronoun like everybody because it suggested a sexless plural.

Paradoxically, the female grammarian who introduced this he business was a feminist if ever there was one. Anne Fisher (1719-78) was not only a woman of letters but also a prosperous entrepreneur. She ran a school for young ladies and operated a printing business and a newspaper in Newcastle with her husband, Thomas Slack. In short, she was the last person you would expect to suggest that he should apply to both sexes. But apparently she couldn’t get her mind around the idea of using they as a singular.

In other matters, though, Fisher was eminently reasonable. Ever since English grammars began appearing in the late 1500s, for example, they were formed on the Latin model (the very word grammar originally meant the study of Latin). Fisher strongly condemned this classical bias and said that English suffered when it was forced into a Latin mold. She not only defended English against claims of inferiority but also said its lack of inflections and declensions (or, as she wrote, “needless perplexities” and “peculiarities”) was an advantage — a heretical view in its time. What’s more, she used plain words, calling a noun a “name” and an auxiliary verb a “helping verb.”

But alas, in swapping he for they, Fisher replaced a number problem with a gender problem. Since the 1850s, wordies have been dreaming up universal pronouns (thon, ne, heer, ha and others), but attempts to introduce them into the language have all flopped. “Among the many reforms proposed for the English language by its right-minded, upstanding and concerned users,” the linguist Dennis E. Baron has written, “the creation of an epicene or bisexual pronoun stands out as the one most often advocated and attempted, and the one that has most often failed.”

Meanwhile, many great writers — Byron, Austen, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, Trollope and more — continued to use they and company as singulars, never mind the grammarians. In fact, so many people now use they in the old singular way that dictionaries and usage guides are taking a critical look at the prohibition against it. R. W. Burchfield, editor of The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, has written that it’s only a matter of time before this practice becomes standard English: “The process now seems irreversible.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) already finds the singular they acceptable “even in literary and formal contexts,” but the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) isn’t there yet.

It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they. After all, they gave you a slide. It began life as a plural object pronoun and evolved into the whole enchilada: subject and object, singular and plural. But umbrage the grammarians took, and like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language. Yes, even those who use only 140 characters a pop.

Patricia T. O’Conner and Stewart Kellerman are the authors of “Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language.” William Safire is on vacation.